You welcomed your smartphone into your life for its life-altering potential. But has it become a Trojan horse, something initially welcome but troublesome in retrospect? Your smartphone won’t be unleashing Greek soldiers while you sleep, of course. But maybe it’s become a tool for procrastination and distraction.
So how might you check to see whether that thing you’re doing on your mobile device is just avoidance? Perhaps the technology itself could help? I tried asking Siri, the artificially intelligent assistant on my iPhone, “am I procrastinating?” but all she came up with was “I would prefer not to say.” No help there then. Maybe better to look through the evolution of your relationship with your phone for clues.
Think back to the time before you had the sense that there was a smartphone-shaped hole in your life. You were uninformed about a lot of things – the up-to-the-minute currency exchange rate for your next holiday destination, the latest news from Turkmenistan, and your potential as a professional Angry Birds player – among other things.
But then you got to know what a smartphone could do for you. You suddenly had colleagues who were responding to emails much more quickly because they had a Blackberry, and the boss was impressed. Or maybe you were amazed when someone whipped out their phone and quickly located the nearest Starbucks. So what was it, The Feature That Got You Hooked? What was it that made you realize that, yes, you did have a smartphone-shaped hole in your life?
Whatever it was, it’s likely that you’re still using it for that now. But here’s the thing: you’re probably using it for a whole lot of things that you hadn’t intended when you bought it. The smart phone-shaped hole has gotten a lot bigger.
My sense though is that when it comes to our mobile technology we’re becoming less deliberate, and therefore more easily distracted. These days the silicon tail is wagging the human dog. Once we’ve got the thing in our hands we’re often coming up with things to do that we *can* do, not necessarily that we want to or need to do. The slick interface and the rich set of apps contribute to this. It’s so easy and seamless to get from one thing to the next, that there’s little barrier between “I need to check my email” and “while I’ve got the thing out I might as well check my bank balance… (for the second time today).”
I’m not arguing against a bit of relaxation or entertainment here, both of which are great uses of our time when life permits. But allowing ourselves to be too open to distraction has consequences. In Distraction: A Philosopher’s Guide to Being Free, Damon Young writes “to commit [time] to … this gadget is to withdraw time, energy, and wherewithal from another possibility.” If our time on this earth is valuable, and limited, then don’t we want to have the sense that we’re using it wisely?
Whether it’s drafting the budget for next year, or playing with the dog, we want to have the feeling that we’ve been making good choices about how to focus our time and attention. We want to, in other words, ensure that we’ve been making good priority calls from amongst all the potential uses for our time.
As an alternative, how about this: next time you have your smartphone in your hands, ask yourself: “What exactly am I turning this on for? When will I be done?” Good answers would look like “when I have the address of the restaurant” or “when I know whether my bank balance means I need to transfer some funds between accounts.” Try to avoid open-ended answers like “when I’ve checked my email” – that’s a slippery slope that probably doesn’t have a bottom. Instead how about “when I’ve figured out whether there are any emails that need my immediate attention, and I’ve replied to them.”
And if you do decide that some down time is called for, then embrace it with gusto. That new Angry Birds Rio app is really cool.